I Daniel Blake

‘I, Daniel Blake’ Review: Pained Politics, Devastating Drama

'I, Daniel Blake'

Movie Rating:


For decades, Ken Loach has been one of the angriest political filmmakers in Britain and one of the most painfully real as well. His movies walk a fine line between aggressive polemics and delicate naturalistic drama. The mix isn’t always right, with the righteous politics of Loach’s scripts often undermining the stripped-down human drama he directs. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is one of his most potent features in years, even if it strains believability ever so slightly to make a point.

Dave Johns stars as that Daniel fellow from the title. He’s fifty-something and recently suffered a heart attack, so his doctor doesn’t want him to work. Unfortunately, he’s not exactly in an economic bracket for retirement, so he’s required to depend on social services. Thanks to some idiotic bureaucracy, he needs to prove that he’s looking for work to continue getting benefits but can’t accept any job. It’s a twisted system and no one at his local welfare office is willing to help. If anything, they go out of their way to make things harder than they need to be. In the midst of that battle, Daniel meets a young woman named Katie (Hayley Squires). She’s a single mother of two who was recently forced to move in search of benefits and struggles to maintain her family and sanity while fighting the same system. Together, the pair form a unique bond and help keep each other’s spirits afloat in a world determined to tear them down.

Obviously, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ isn’t a particularly fun movie to watch. In fact, it’s downright soul-crushing. Loach doesn’t lean on feel-good bonding to lighten the load or even music to heighten the experience. He shoots spare frames on gray, rotting locations. This is a flat looking film on purpose. It offers no pretty cinema to distract from the harsh reality that the director wants to explore, just ugly truth spat in your face with raw intensity and righteous anger. The few moments of escape, such as the bleak humor of the impersonal government language and processing or the joy that forms in the central relationship, are there primarily so that things cut that much deeper when the pain arrives. It works and the film is powerful in its depiction of a social class underserved by the very institutions set up to protect it. However, it’s a grim world to spend 100 minutes in.

Still, Loach is a filmmaker with deep humanity. While his characters might feel like pawns in a political allegory by the finale, he treats them with dignity until then and casts exquisitely. Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are remarkable at the center of the film. They have scenes to play so painful that you can barely stay focused on the screen, but do so with gut-wrenching honesty. They also find warmth and humanity, sharing a genuine connection that feels real and mercifully devoid of any unnecessary romance or father-figure melodramatics. Their characters grow and mutate over the course of the film to suit Loach’s thesis, but never for a second does that feel forced or tacked-on. You watch them mature like humans and flounder like so many repressed people stuck in an inexplicable and humiliating system. That they’re so real and empathetic just makes the film sting that much harder.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is one of the best produced and performed films that Ken Loach has delivered in years. The movie feels so excruciatingly real that the director’s frames are more like windows into a world too often cast aside and ignored in society. It’s a shame the filmmaker leans so hard on conventional screenwriting payoffs to pound his points home in the finale. It still works and has a strong emotional punch. However, the story edges towards manipulation in an awkward manner that undercuts all the earned verisimilitude of the first 80 minutes or so.

Nevertheless, that’s a stumble across the finish line and not a full fail. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is far too powerful and pointed a film to dismiss, even if most will find it impossible to watch. There’s no fun to be had with ‘I, Daniel Blake’, but it’s still an important experience to suffer through.

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